Knights of the Old Republic: Outcasts
Chapter Seven: Choices
The crew of the Wanderer clustered around their lost lamb.
The storm of Kara's weeping had finally slowed and stopped, but she still stood sheltered within Renn's arms and didn't seem inclined to move.
Finally, Renn's weight shifted. "Kara. Armor. Ow."
She snapped back to her own feet, hands flying to her mouth as she realized what she'd been doing. "I didn't hurt you, did I, Renn?"
"I'll have a few interesting bruises," he muttered.
"Come," Liana took Kara's arm. "Let's get you out of that and into something less... defensive?" she suggested with a smile.
Liana led Kara back to their room to help the girl out of the rather impressive golden armor. She was glad to see that Kara didn't seem physically harmed, at least. "Are you sure you don't need to go to the medbay?" she asked again. She suspected she might be 'hovering,' as Renn called it, but it was only her worry.
"I'm just sore, Liana. I'll be fine." The breastplate and greaves removed, Kara unzipped the bodysuit to which the bracers and lower leg armor were attached. A rumpled blue silk gown drooped dis-spiritedly underneath. It had been bunched up around Kara's waist.
The girl seemed to consider the abused finery. "Don't tell Renn about this, okay? I don't want him to tease me about it."
Liana blinked. "Why would he tease you about a dress?" She laid the armor carefully on the unused bunk. She wanted to ask about it, about what had happened to her aboard the Sith ship, but thought better of it. Kara would tell them in her own time.
"It's a long story," Kara said, stripping the dress off and dropping it carelessly. She went to dig some of the clothes she'd bought recently out of their bundles when she paused. From the pile of articles, Liana saw her pick up a small box of ornately carved hair combs.
Kara stood there a long moment before setting it back down with a soft caress. "Jerk," she said fondly.
Liana was now thoroughly confused. "Kara?" she asked. "What is it?"
"That's a longer story," was all Kara would say.
Kara and Liana made their way back to the cockpit, the former now garbed in a sleek grey ship suit and tunic, her hair held back by one of the large wooden combs.
"Renn?" she asked. "Is there any chance of contacting Aeron before he mounts the most useless rescue in history?"
Renn looked up at her, and flashed her his little half-smile. "Who're we to stop him from doing something stupid?" he asked. But his hands were already at work on his console, trying to raise the Jedi Academy on the comm.
Soon the anxious face of the Jedi appeared on screen. "Kara! Thank the Force you're alive!"
Renn snorted. "Yeah, we had nothing to do with it..."
Kara ignored that. "Aeron, listen... I need to speak to your Masters, right away. I'm going to ask them some questions, and they have to be completely, totally honest with me, all right? No philosophy. Fact."
Taken aback, he nodded. "Give me a moment." His signal faded to standby, then returned, split by five other, smaller images of older men and women of various species.
One of them spoke. "Ask your questions of us, Bladedancer's kin."
"Did you send Aeron to kill me, or do me harm in any circumstance?" she demanded.
Aeron protested, but Kara wasn't paying attention to him. The outraged shock of his Masters echoed through the Music. The ring of truth echoed in their denials.
"Good," Kara continued. "Are you actively trying to secure Selene's legacy?"
This was greeted with sporadic burst of unease. "We are only interested in your training as a Jedi," one Master finally said. Atonal blandishments of falsehood rang for her inner ear alone.
"Lastly, if I reject your training, what do plan for me?" she demanded.
"We would allow you to go your own path," the same Master said gravely. It was a bitter, boldfaced lie. The harsh screech of untruth was very nearly deafening.
Now she was faced with a dilemma. Did she dare tell people she knew she could not trust with the information? Did she have any other choice?
"Hear me," she said sternly. "Venaar took what he wanted from me. He knows of what Selene found, how to access it, and I believe he means to, even now. He's headed back to Derra IV and if he succeeds..."
"What is there?" Aeron asked.
"Everything has a balancing opposite. Matter and energy, light and dark, heat and cold, life...and death. Venaar is trying to unleash something that is the opposite of the Music-" she shook her head, "-of the Force. If he succeeds he will kill every living thing in the universe."
Liana sat down heavily in her chair, her ears flat back against her head. Even Renn was quiet for a change, his expression unreadable, his eyes dark. Kara's words seemed to hang in the air of the cockpit like a weight. They both had to know what she intended.
"What would you have us do, girl?" one of the Masters responded. "There is no such disturbance in the Force. No sign of any such thing," he scoffed. "The only real danger is you. We all felt the awakening of your power. You are an avalanche of Force presence. You must be controlled, for the good of us all."
"I've brought you warning," Kara responded evenly. "What you do with it is your affair. Renn, cut the channel."
The comm cut off just as another of the Jedi was beginning to protest. "So," Renn said, "not satisfied with one Sith cruiser, you want us to take on the entire fleet? Remind me never to loan you money. You like bad odds."
Her eyes flashed angrily at first, but they softened quickly. She simply reached over and laid a hand on his shoulder, her eyes looking at anything but either of them. "I have to get to the Gateway before Venaar does, or at least, before he can open it."
"The what?" Renn asked.
Kara sighed and fell into one of the vacant cockpit seats. "Selene found... I guess you could call it a hole in the Music. A spot where there's something that shouldn't be here. Through this hole, something's been leaking into our universe, something that is the opposite of the Music, the Force, whatever you want to call it. It's been storing itself up in people for a long, long time. It's been trying to get those people to open the hole wider, and let more of it in."
"Venaar is its agent, then?" Liana asked. "Selene called him 'Avatar'."
Kara nodded. "That's what Selene meant by his will not being his own. This... Silence... completely controls him." She put her face in her hands. "I touched it in him. It's cold, still. If the Music is life then the Silence is definitely death."
Neither Renn or Liana said a word. Their faces grew grim at the idea of such a power flooding the galaxy and beyond.
"I'm not asking either of you to go with me," Kara finally said.
"Are you planning to walk to Derra IV, then?" Renn's brows rose.
"Renn, be serious," Liana snapped.
"Look, the way I see it, we've already pulled off one impossible thing this trip. Why not push our luck?"
Liana shook her head at him. "We will see this through with you, Kara." She paused, sounding a little uncertain. "If you'll have us, that is."
"Well... It is kinda far to walk," Kara said, winking through moist eyes.
Aeron marched into the Council Chamber of the Solara academy.
The five Masters turned as one to watch as he stalked determinedly towards the center of their half-ring of seats. They said nothing as he stood before them, face cold as stone.
Finally, aged D'Yarn, the oldest of them, spoke. "You take issue with our decision regarding the girl?"
"I do. How could you ignore the threat Venaar poses and instead label Kara a danger?"
"We have only her word for the danger," another replied. "All we know is what the Force tells us."
"The Force tells us a great storm is coming. You know of what I speak," Aeron said accusingly, "and yet you are content to sit here and do nothing?"
"What would you have us do?" D'Yarn said. "Rush our meager resources to her rescue? Confront some upstart warlord over a meaningless world?"
"I would bid you act!" Aeron roared. "No life is meaningless in the Force! How can you turn your back on centuries of our lore and tradition?"
"You would follow the example of Revan then?" Ashee Quin asked, her youthful black eyes piercing Aeron like needles. "You confuse patience for disregard."
"Revan rushed to war when there were still other alternatives," Aeron said. "I go to battle as it is the last resort. And no, Master Quin, I do not confuse patience, but I believe you do... except you confuse it with apathy." He turned on his heel and stormed out.
"Well," Renn said grimly, "We've set course for Derra IV, but it's going to take us awhile to get there. The hyperdrive took some damage during the rescue. It's still working, but we're gonna have to make a series of smaller jumps if we want to get anywhere."
"Can it be fixed?" Liana asked, pulling up the damage readouts on her own console to study it.
"Not unless we park somewhere for a few days, I think, and I don't think we'd save any time stopping to fix it. It'll get us there, just a little slower than usual."
"How long?" Kara asked.
"Three days, minimum," he responded.
Liana sighed. "My poor ship," she said.
Kara was torn between guilt that the Wanderer was in bad shape and anger that Venaar was going to beat them there. She tried to think of something to say when the sound of her rumbling stomach voiced its own opinion for her.
"Sorry," she said, blushing. "It's been a long time since breakfast."
Liana reached over and patted the girl's arm. "Our course is set. There's nothing to be gained by sitting here wondering what awaits us. We should share a meal together." She didn't have to add 'while we can'. It was obvious in her voice.
Renn snorted. "Liana, you should break out a bottle of that stuff you think I don't know about."
She stared at him. "You don't drink."
He shrugged. "We're going up against the entire Sith fleet. If there's ever a time to get drunk, it's now."
Three hours later, they sat around a small table in the main hold. Liana's reserve turned out to be a rich, fruity liquor that warmed Kara from her very core, and she herself had contributed by spicing some of the ship rations into fare that at least tasted fresh.
As they finished off their food, Liana asked gently what had happened to her onboard the Dragon.
Kara poured herself a generous portion of the drink and took two big swallows before she answered. She told them of Venaar's accusations, of the fog that he filled her mind with, of what she had learned, and the fate of the Holocron. Another swallow and she told of her re-awakening and the new crystals in her lightsaber.
When she was done, she grew quiet again, the feeling of failure crushing in on her once more.
"And you believed all that?" Renn demanded.
Liana glared in his direction. "It's not your fault, Kara." She reached across the table to touch the girl's arm. "He manipulated you, but you were strong enough to break free. There is still hope."
"Hope is nice," Kara said, "but I'd give a lot for a Republic fleet..."
"Sorry, kid, we used ours."
She blinked in confusion.
It was Renn who told the story of Kara's rescue from their side, about Gaman's betrayal and his own plans for his fake Republic warships, with slightly more bragging about his own brilliance than was probably warranted. He'd probably earned it, though. Liana only interrupted once, to tell Kara about Aeron's insistence that they strike when they did, when it became apparent that Renn was going to gloss over that detail.
"He did?" she asked. "Huh... I don't know how much of what Venaar told me is false or true, but the Jedi Council seemed to bear a lot of it out. They were lying when they answered, by the way... most of the time, anyway."
Renn snorted. "Hell, I coulda told you that. They were too nervous." He shrugged, then added, "I might not like him much, but I don't think our pet Jedi knows about whatever it is they were hiding."
"I think perhaps I owe Aeron an apology for my behavior," Liana said quietly.
"What'd you do to him?" Kara asked.
The Trianii sighed. "I lost my temper. He suggested that you might be lost to us completely, and I attacked him."
Renn grinned. "Didn't you notice the cuts on his face when we talked to him?"
"Uh... no," Kara admitted.
He drained the last of his cup. "I got it on the security cameras if you wanna see it later."
"Renn!" Liana exclaimed.
Kara sniggered. "Did he wet himself?"
With grave reverence, Aeron entered the Senate Military Advisory Committee meeting chamber on Coruscant.
The dozen or so Senators and Fleet officers looked down on him from their places around the ornately carved circular desk. The room was designed to make a person in Aeron's position feel smaller and more insignificant than those who sat like dread judges above.
The fact that he had left Solara immediately after his impromptu meeting with the Jedi Council and had not slept or washed during the twenty-hour trip to Coruscant meant that the rumpled and withered figure he cut before the Committee probably didn't help.
"Jedi Rhade," the Committee chair, an aging Rodian began, with the aid of his protocol droid. "What has brought you to us in such haste?"
Aeron executed a quick but formal bow. "I am here on a matter of utmost urgency. The Sith have invaded and blockaded the world of Derra IV. This is not new; however we have uncovered evidence that there is something of terrible destructive power hidden on the planet itself." He paused, but no reaction was forthcoming. "We believe that the Sith will use this power against the Republic."
The woman who replied was an obvious military officer. "The Jedi Council has informed us that you are not their representative in this matter. We've had no intelligence from that sector suggesting anything of the sort. Do you have any proof of your claims?"
"My own witness," Aeron replied. He had not expected the Council to deny him like that. "The Sith Lord, Venaar, occupied the world in question for the sole purpose of finding this power. He arrived in his flagship three standard days before his blockading force and sent out search parties. Those searchers tracked down a single family line and exterminated all but a single member of said family. She managed to escape form the planet in my care." It was sort of true at least.
"Venaar continued to pursue her and finally recaptured her," Aeron continued. "Venaar then questioned this girl until she was forced to reveal what she knew of this secret power. Once he had that information, Venaar set course back to rejoin the Derra IV blockade as fast as possible."
"We have only your word of this, Jedi," the female officer said sharply. "We cannot divert ships from important garrisons to a remote world without more evidence."
"Yes, where is this girl, then?" asked a grey-haired human Senator. "If she can corroborate your story, we will need to speak with her."
'She's out there trying to stop what no one else seems willing to,' Aeron almost said. "She in en route to Derra IV to try and stop Venaar. The Republic must support her or we are all lost."
"The Republic is not commanded by the Jedi," the chairman said, his forceful words losing something in the banal tones of his translator droid. "Especially not by a Jedi who does not speak for the Order. Your Council has advised us that this is a Jedi affair. We will not involve ourselves in it."
Aeron's reply was interrupted by the odd shuffling clump of a bipedal life form using a cane. It came from one of the long hallways that led to this room and it grew hypnotically louder as its source drew nearer.
An old man in senatorial robes entered. His silver hair shone with the determination of an old man who refuses to let time and age hobble him, and his eyes burned with intelligence and fire.
The chairman got to his feet in surprise. "Senator Onasi! Your audience with us is not for some time yet."
"I'm early," he said succinctly.
"Please, sir," another senator said. "Our business with this," his pause spoke volumes of derision, "Jedi is almost concluded."
"My business with you is in relation to his," Onasi replied. "First, though, I must say this. I have served the Republic for my entire life. I served with honor, loyalty and devotion. I fought the Mandalorians, I fought the Sith, and I fought with Revan to end Malak's war. I served on through the dark times and I stand here before you now to say that never, not once in all that time, have I ever been so disgusted with you."
One of the senators started to stammer a reply, but Senator Onasi cut him off. "I'm not finished. How dare you turn your back on a Jedi who comes calling for aid? How dare you allow a Republic world to remain under Sith rule? The Republic has fallen far."
Swinging to fix Aeron with his gaze, he said, "You need help. I offer it. The Telosian Security Force is at your disposal. These," he paused and apparently bit back a nastier word, "people will just have to shift forces to cover the gap. Go with my blessing, and good hunting."
The elderly man turned to leave when the ranking naval officer stood to attention. "Admiral Onasi!" he called. The Senator paused. "It's good to see you again, Carth."
"I'm a Senator now, Resh," Carth Onasi replied. "Don't go demoting me."
"You'll always be an Admiral to me, Sir," Resh replied and saluted.
Liana sat in one of the chairs in the hold, with the lights dimmed, nursing one last glass of her Trianii liquor. She should have known it was too strong for Renn and Kara, but she hadn't expected them both to fall asleep so quickly. Looking back, she probably should have taken it away from them before they'd consumed so much. She hadn't had the heart to do so; they'd actually been laughing, and that was worth it when such a grim prospect lurked ahead of them.
She looked fondly at Kara, asleep on the bench, and Renn, sprawled on the floor not far away. Not trusting herself to be able to wrestle either of them back to their beds, Liana had brought blankets out here for them and let them sleep.
She stared pensively into her drink, then set it down. Hard to believe they'd all been through so much in such a short time. Harder still to believe that they had so much more to go through. Liana said a silent prayer. She was not a fool. She knew that they would probably not survive their return to Derra IV.
She'd always been an explorer, a willing outcast, abandoning home and family to see the rest of the Galaxy. Having left, she had never expected to go home again. Hers was a ship of orphans, cut adrift from home and family.
Liana looked again at Renn, and then at Kara. She was not afraid to die, because she would not be alone. She would be with her kin, the true kin that the Goddess had brought her.
She didn't realize that she'd been dozing until a groan from Renn brought her up out of it completely. He was sitting up, and he blinked at her, bleary-eyed, and rubbed his side. "Why was I sleeping on the floor?" he demanded, tossing the blanket aside as he tried to climb to his feet.
"Shh," she scolded, pointing to Kara, who was still curled up in her blanket. "You drank too much, and I didn't want to lug you back to your own bed."
"I'm sore," he complained. "And my head is pounding." He staggered into the alcove off the side of the hold that served as the ship's small medbay, probably for some painkillers. Liana stood and stretched her own cramped muscles.
Renn came back into view. He braced himself against the alcove's doorway as he choked down his medication. "Why'd you let me drink that stuff?" he muttered, shutting his eyes.
On impulse, Liana closed the distance between them and laid her forehead gently against his.
"Don't you start getting sad on me, Captain," he said, though he didn't pull away. "You know I can't fly this thing alone."
She laughed and brushed her cheek against his in affection. "I'm not sad, Renn," she said. She was surprised herself to realize it was true.
Kara tried to sit up and immediately winced. "Oh, my head," she groaned.
Liana began to laugh, as if this was the most humorous thing in the Galaxy. Renn sighed and left her view for a moment. "Here. This'll help," he said, returning to hand a couple of pills and some water to the girl.
She swallowed the pills gratefully, then she sent a mock glare over at Liana. "Laugh it up, fuzzball. If my head doesn't explode in the next few minutes, it'll be a major miracle. Why, oh, why did I drink so much?"
"I'm sorry," Liana managed. "You were both enjoying yourselves so much last night, I didn't have the heart to stop you."
Renn snorted. "You're not sorry."
"A sorry person would have mercy and shoot me," Kara added with a weak smile. The painkillers were already pushing back the pounding headache.
Liana shook her head in mock exasperation. "Just rest. It'll pass soon." Her ears flicked a moment ahead of the sound of her comlink. "Yes?"
"Mistress Liana, we are coming up on the next jump point," said B4's mechanical voice.
"All right, I'll take care of it," Liana replied, striding briskly toward the cockpit.
Renn sat down in a chair. "You know she drank as much as either of us. Why's she fine?" he muttered.
"Forcing things down unsuspecting throats must be some hitherto unknown Spacer thing," Kara replied. "Thanks for that, by the way."
"You're lucky I had a capsule ready. Otherwise, it would've had to be an external transmitter, and they'd probably have destroyed that long before we were ready." Renn paused, then shrugged. "I wouldn't have had to trick you if you'd just taken it."
She tried to adjust herself on the bench so her head didn't feel like exploding, but gave it up for hopeless. "Us farm girls are stubborn, I guess."
"So am I," he said, with that infuriating half-smirk of his. "If we get through this, I'm getting you a permanent tracker implant."
"That sounds... painful. Maybe I'll let myself get shot and avoid the whole thing." All right, that was the wrong thing to say right now.
Renn's face grew grim. "There's a cheerful thought." He got up again and paced across the room, seeming restless. "You think we have a chance?" he asked suddenly. He wasn't looking at her.
"My father used to say odds worked like this: all mathematics aside, something either will happen, or it won't. I'd say that gives us about a fifty-fifty shot."
"Damn, you do like bad odds, farm girl."
The Dragon reverted to real space high above the word of Derra IV. Arrayed before them was every ship, fighter and transport loyal to Lord Venaar. Whole planets had been stripped of people in the mass exodus of Sith firepower to this remote world. Battle cruisers gleamed in the light of the system's primary. Fighters, both manned and droid-piloted, buzzed about like swarms of brilliant insects. All of them facing outwards, waiting along hyperspace routes.
On the bridge of his flagship, Venaar surveyed the vast fleet and sighed. "Captain Hyridan, have all troops, security personnel, and every man not on flight detail prepare to disembark. Issue combat armor and field weapons where needed. We need them all on the plant's surface as soon as possible."
"My lord? But the fleet...?"
"Leave skeleton crews on all vessels. They are only here to delay interference. The real prize is on the surface, and once we have it, anyone who stands against us will be as dust."
"Yes, Lord Venaar." Hyridan saluted and turned to issue orders.
Venaar turned on his heel and made his way to the hangar bay. There he boarded his personal fighter craft and dropped from the Dragon down into the planet's atmosphere. Already the first wave of troop ships were dropping from the fleet towards the planet, their destination preprogrammed.
Venaar's ship cut through clouds and emerged above a brilliant green vista. The natural beauty of the world was lost on him as he maneuvered his fighter to the head of a long column of descending Sith gunships.
Fields ripe with crops ready for harvest sped by beneath them, rivers gleaming silvery-blue soon faded away and towering mountains capped with bright snow were easily avoided. Their destination neared, only a roiling cloud bank barring their path. Venaar's fighter accelerated and pierced the veil, revealing a stark, lifeless valley. Nothing grew here, nothing stirred except random shifts and falls of fine shale sifted down the steep cliffs by rain.
There, at the end of the valley, like a worm hole bored into the side of a perfect green fruit, was the cave.
Venaar landed and ordered the gun ships to begin disembarking troops around the area. Leaving the disposition of these forces to his commanders, Venaar strode into the echoing depths.
The Wanderer's crew spent the final hyperspace jump preparing for battle. Liana had strapped the pair of blasters she'd been wielding in the cantina to her belt, along with a long knife that looked vaguely ceremonial, before helping Kara get back into the golden armor. Renn had said something about needing to work on T5's special fallback program. Kara didn't want to think about what he was doing, because it probably involved setting the crazy little astromech up with weapons and a loophole in its programming.
B4's voice came over the ship's intercom. "We will be arriving at our final destination shortly."
The three of them came together to sit in silence in the ship's cockpit, save for the sounds of the ship's system and whatever Renn was doing on his console.
The Wanderer reverted to real space, and they found themselves face to face with an armada. The Sith fighters wasted no time in setting course to greet them.
"Incoming," Liana said shortly, taking manual control to try and avoid them.
"Heh." Renn shook his head. "They're not all manned fighters this time. I guess they really didn't learn." His fingers flew over his console, trying to repeat the trick he'd pulled on their way out of Derra IV.
"The fighters are closing in, Renn..." Kara said worriedly. Indeed, it looked like a tidal wave of ships was nearly upon them.
"Almost there," Renn said through gritted teeth.
"Now would be good," Liana pointed out a moment later as the fighters' formation swung wide, planning to envelop the freighter.
"Damn! They changed their protocols! I got nothing!" Renn swore.
The three of them looked helplessly out the cockpit viewport as the wave of fighters pounced.
-End, Chapter Seven